Honorable Mention – 2019 James H. Nash Contest

The following poem is part of a larger work on the photographs and life of Arkansas portrait photographer Mike Disfarmer, 1884-1959. To see his photos, visit Disfarmer.org.

“Elizabeth Mayfield, ca. 1940”


“the cat couldn’t kitten and the slut couldn’t pup and
the old man couldn’t get his rhubarb up.” – Ozark song

          Rhubarb’s no true fruit—its stalk rope a mess in the earth every
which way, and its leaves a poison for the uneven squirrel, a nation of them,
          without enough sense to starve in drought. Pies were always

          a labor, the skillet pitched over the open fire. In town, the storefront has them,
boughtened, latticed she said, the dough flattened. Come in berry flavors,
          straw and blue. How the rhubarb would dye our hands and ruinate the pie

          if we’d tried a thing like that. The root can’t yield so kindly. My sister
craved the plant, its bitterness, over the course of her pregnancy,
          and I’d scavenge the north-facing hillside for some bits, too frightened

          of the mark that comes to ink the skin of any child whose mother’d
been denied. A picture in the image and likeness of the rhubarb’s
          rose-veined leaf. It’d be a stupid worry if I hadn’t seen it myself. That bat

          years ago who’d witnessed a man slain, the blood murdering her hem,
did later muddy her little girl’s cheek, color rich with iron. Superstition’s
          hunger enough. The tale, story enough. Just too many an occasion a lady

          ought to be warry of. Why aunts take the girls to fetch water like a pack of
opossum to dot the hills as pats of butter do on a crust. Why men get
          full on resentment about not enough, though dinner’s ready, and been so.

LIZZY PETERSEN is a St. Louis native. Her poetry has appeared in or is forthcoming from Beloit Poetry Journal, Birmingham Poetry Review, Carve, FifthWednesdayPlus, The Journal, Midwestern Gothic, Moon City Review, New South, RHINO, and Southern Humanities Review. She previously served as the Managing Editor of the literary magazine River Styx, and currently runs an after-school program through a partnership with St. Louis Public Schools called OutsideLitMag.com.